In late August 1943, Soviet troops after liberating Left Bank Ukraine approached the Dnipro in a 750-kilometer-long front. However, bloody battles continued for over two months after that. Under the enemy’s artillery and aviation fire the Red Army was trying to fortify its positions on the right bank, creating dozens of beachheads. Aside from manifestations of unprecedented heroism, the Battle of the Dnipro revealed gross mistakes of the Army command that wanted to recapture Ukraine’s capital at any costs (the official number of those killed in the Kyiv operation is 417,000). The Nazis had been in fact swamped with dead bodies of the soldiers, who drowned in ice-cold water and desperately fought for every patch of land. The beachheads proved ineffective, particularly the Bukra beachhead to the south of Kyiv, where thousands of soldiers were slain.
On October 24 the Chief Commander’s Headquarters approved a directive whereby Pavlo Rybalko’s Third Tank Army was redeployed to the area of Lutezh. It was our compatriots’ tank divisions that finally broke the Nazis’ resistance on November 5, 1943, and approached Sviatoshyn’s south outskirts. The Soviet troops took control of the Zhytomyr highway and the course toward Vasylkiv. On November 5-6 panic-stricken Nazi regiments fled the city.
The diary of the celebrated film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko, who was in the first ranks of Kyiv’s liberators, give one an idea of the situation in the city in those fateful days. The following is the November 6, 1943 entry: “The more I look at Kyiv, the more I understand the horrible tragedy that befell it. There are virtually no people in Kyiv. Just a handful of crippled, miserable, and indigent people. No children, no girls, no young men. Only women and cripples. A striking sight. The world hasn’t seen anything like this for several centuries. Kyiv used to have a million population. Now there are hardly fifty thousand people left in its ruins.”
Dovzhenko’s words contain the horrible truth, which demands that we admit one thing: no matter how much we condemn Stalin’s totalitarian regime, if Kyiv had not been liberated in November 1943, the city would have been razed to the ground. There would be only charred ruins, and a few thousand miserable people left. The liberation of Kyiv made it possible to not only rescue Ukraine’s capital but also begin its reconstruction. But what really matters is that people could hope again that Kyiv will live forever.
The statistics are astonishing: in the years of occupation 940 grand buildings were burned to the ground or ruined in downtown Kyiv alone (Khreshchatyk was blown up by Soviet troops on September 24, five days after the city was captured by the Nazis); in late November 1943 the city population was around 180,000 against 940,000 in 1939, that is one-fifth of the prewar population.
It was not the first time in Kyiv’s millennium-long history that it rose from the ashes after barbarians’ raids: Batu Khan’s hordes in 1240 and the Nazis in the twentieth century. The sixtieth anniversary of the liberation reminds us that in the last century the victory of life and striving for creation required immense, tragic losses and supernatural efforts.